A writer struggles with his inability to produce a new short story.
Bill managed to put on a pair of dress slacks and an unlaundered, long-sleeved shirt prior to his outing. In his haste to escape the bleak “four walls of hell”, he left both his wool sweater and tweed jacket behind. The suffocating hotel suite had held him captive for over twelve hours. Although his escape was predictable, it was poorly executed.
In the declining autumn sun the bookish fugitive found himself walking at a quickened pace, ignoring the chill. He made his way down to the corner, crossed the street, hurried the length of the block, crossed another street, and then veered to the left. His few thoughts focused on the sanctuary ahead. He needed a break, no, a diversion, from yet another unproductive day!
Bill’s retreat, the Jacks and Queens Club, was exactly one city block from his hotel. He traversed the distance in six minutes or less, on most days.
“A big black hole, that’s all that occupies the space between my ears! Geoffrey Steiner can call fifteen times a day and I still won’t answer. What purpose is there in it? There’s nothing to publish, nothing to print!” A clearly depressed William Prescott had been repeating his solitary lament for the better part of the evening. Only the bartender pretended to listen.
The burly, sour-faced man looked up impatiently as he dunked the last martini glass in the wash basin, swirled a rag around its rim, and then carefully placed it top down on the sideboard to dry. He said nothing that would encourage this otherwise one-sided conversation. It was quitting time.
Bill continued to watch as the last of the ice melted into the bottom of his otherwise empty whiskey glass. The vexed writer was beginning to mumble curses under his breath. Last call was twenty minutes ago. The plush cocktail lounge was almost deserted.
He clung tenaciously to the only tumbler on the brass-railed, mahogany bar. He wished he could fast-forward to tomorrow evening, simply deleting the poorly conceived scene he now found himself playing out. Unfortunately, he knew this wasn’t any more likely than the formation of thirty-five hundred brilliantly composed words on those friggin’ blank sheets of paper still resting undisturbed back in his room.
The barkeep finally managed to catch Bill’s down turned eyes. With a sideways nod he silently, but emphatically, indicated that it was time for him to go.
“Mick, my man, you don’t know how easy you’ve got it. No deadlines, no publishers breathing down your neck. Hell, you’ve got it made! Me, I spend my life wandering around dazed and confused. Half the time I don’t know whether it’s day or night. Seems like I’m running into a brick wall every time I turn around.” Bill swept a crop of wispy, blond hair from over his left eye and rose from his barstool unwillingly. “All you have to do is clock in and clock out!”
The bartender turned methodically to the cash register, ignoring the parting shot.
An older couple was just making their way out the front door. Their exit gave Bill some sense of direction as he forced his tennis-shoed feet to match their path. The voice of Frank Sinatra singing “That’s Life” made him grin cynically as he pushed through the heavy portal.
A cold, damp, mid-October wind struck him soundly as he faced the dark street. Bill had not considered the inevitable two A.M. plunge in temperature. He felt his jaws clench at the mere idea of dealing with the vacuous reality of having to return to his lair. The chill, however, stirred him to action.
He cautiously looked the sidewalk up and down. A plastic grocery bag, candy bar wrapper, and a discarded handbill danced in a whirlwind at his feet. A taxi idled at the curb.
A gauzy layer of fog laced the city’s nearly deserted streets. Everything appeared distorted, shrouded like sheeted furniture in a Martha’s Vineyard summer cottage. Bill squinted, attempting to focus on the massive glass and granite walls that rose abruptly in front of him.
The yellow cab peeled away. The elderly couple already nestled in the backseat were probably headed for some plush uptown residence. No similarly cloned vehicle lay in wait for Bill. He didn’t care. He knew his digs were only one block away. He always walked. Tonight would be no different.
Bill pulled his shirt collar up and around his exposed neck. In doing so he felt the dampness of the mist that had already applied itself to the hair on his uncovered head. Unexpectedly, a shiver washed over him like a wave.
He looked back over his shoulder dejectedly. The neon “open” sign in the curtained window had been turned off as soon as he had cleared the door. It was time to move on.
“Go home,” he urged himself.
A smattering of neon signs and traffic signals now materialized around him, their glow dulled by the fog. On his side of the street to the right, the upright trombone-shaped sign in the distance marked the main doors of the First Trust Bank and Loan Company. The fifteen story building consumed half the block. Its entrance was on the corner of Market and Second Street. There was a story in there somewhere, he thought to himself and shivered again. “Trust” and “Bank” could certainly be considered an oxymoron, in any case.
To his left, down past the two tourist-trap discount stores, front windows bulging with cameras and t-shirts, was the Great Wall, a Chinese takeout restaurant. Next door to that was a deserted-looking tailor’s shop, followed by a non-descript corner market. The tiny store marked the border of First Street, the direction from which he had come earlier that evening.
Bill was in the middle of a block on Market Street. Its four lanes ran east and west. During the day you could only get across at the traffic signals, moving like a piece of flotsam, swept along with hundreds of drone-like pedestrians in a current of humanity. Bill comforted himself with the thought that this nearly overwhelming river of people had all but dried up at this late hour.
The two imposing buildings on the far side of Market housed the usual downtown offices and condo units on the upper floors. These were the haunts of doctors, lawyers, and Indian chiefs, he surmised. The two imposing structures had always been far too intimidating to access. And buying into anything in this part of town, forget it!
Bill opted not to allow his eyes to scan upwards in search of the distant rooftops. Instead they fixed themselves on a black, gaping hole, a crevice between the two buildings, just across from where he stood. Usually he avoided alleys. Tonight he considered the darkened corridor a plausible alternative.
Still frozen in an invisible web of uncertainty, he listened intently. The city had a certain sound at two A.M. Not a hum or a moan, more like an orchestrated mix of distinct vibrations: distant sirens, cars on overpasses, chirping cross-walk signals, slow churning street-sweepers, night birds, and a soft cacophony of electrical generators and transformers. Its familiarity was almost comforting. He let out a melancholy sigh.
“Go home!” he repeated adamantly.
One half block up, one block across, and one half block back down or the alleyway, those were his options. He guessed that the temperature was hovering between forty and forty-five degrees. The shortest path between two points, here and the State Street Hotel was through that not-so-distant, now ominously black, portal. For reasons known only to his subconscious he had never opted to use the alley before. Bill resolutely decided on the shorter path tonight, however, and took a step forward.
“It’s a block, a block, a writers block,” he muttered the words. “Maybe I should write jingles for those big city boys on Wall Street,” he chuckled. “It’s all a load of crap anyway. Anyone can do that. Talk about banging your head against a damn wall!”
Bill now found himself thinking back to his days as an ad copy writer for the Cincinnati Herald Tribune. How many ways can you write about the sleek, sophisticated look of a pair of women’s shoes, for Christ’s sake? After two years of complaining, his former girlfriend had told him to either stop bitching or to find something better to do with his talents.
That had been the catalyst for his career as an author of short stories. It was also the road to their eventual breakup. After four years of unemployment, his first book, “Six September Evenings”, had finally gotten the nod from Banister’s Publishing House. Vanessa had given up on him long before that short-lived victory. He was almost grateful, almost.
Bill neared the edge of the deserted sidewalk when he heard the distinct sound of a late-night transit bus. The guttural growl of the shifting transmission drew his eyes up from the dark grey cement beneath his feet. Two headlights jogged side-by-side. The massive vehicle was coming directly toward him. He took a step back as the beast steadily approached. Then he observed how slow it seemed to be moving. He studied it warily, imagining it to be moving at the pace of a lumbering elephant.
“Why wait?” he decided out loud. “You have plenty of time to cross. The bus hasn’t even passed First Street yet. It’s a block, a block, a writer’s block away!” he recanted in a sing-song voice.
Checking for motor vehicles coming from the opposite direction, Bill leaned forward. There was nothing to be seen or heard. Two steps forward and he teetered on the curb.
An instant later he found himself on his heels as the bus horn blared and the whole thing rushed past. He took two giant steps back, barely maintaining his balance, and shook his fist, cursing the rogue creature as it faded into the night. Red tail lights glared back at him.
Bill was not sure if the fog was thickening inside or outside of his brain. He needed to get home and get some sleep. That was reality. Without looking in either direction he made his way across the street. Footsteps noticeably weaving, he staggered toward the alleyway.
At the mouth of the cavern he paused. “That was easy enough,” he thought. “If words would flow as easily from my pen I would be a rich man by now.” He frowned, chastising himself for that quick and painfully obvious mental observation.
He shrugged. “Never go straight, go forward,” he mumbled incoherently. More jumbled words poured out of his slow moving lips, preceding him into the darkness. An uncomfortable sensation was moving one vertebra at a time, crawling slowly up the back of his neck. The sensation paused at the collar of his shirt only long enough to calculate its position, then, cunningly it leapt surreptitiously to the crop of hair at the back of his scalp.
Eyes again scanned the ground. Bill made out the words “Water and Sewer Works” on a manhole cover and knew he was lined up for the final approach. A few more steps and he stood in the narrow mouth of the alley. He squinted hard, struggling desperately to adjust his eyes to the dark.
“Give me a typewriter, a keyboard, or a match to strike,” he began to rant. “To write or not to write, that is the question! Roomio, oh Roomio… where art tho, my roomio?”
The imaginary line he had been walking now melted into the shadows. He began to veer to the right, then to the left, then back to the right again.
He had taken only ten strides into the dark abyss when a cat leaped from its perch on a trash bin and bounded to the ground in front of him. In its haste to secure a new hiding place the fleeing creature tangled itself in the drunken man’s feet. Bill’s head seemed to unhinge. Unable to slow its motion, it began to roll sideways. Unexpectedly, his whole body obediently followed. In a blur of seconds the wayward journey came to a halt.
All Bill would recall was the impact on his skull as his five-foot, seven inch frame smashed backward into the pavement like a crash-test dummy. He found himself in a pithy pool of putrid black liquid filling a portion of the uneven asphalt surface. A sleep-deprived, alcohol-blunted anger prodded him to thrash about like some great beached fish sensing the futility of its efforts, drawing in that last lethal breath of oxygen. The slithering fog swirled around him like the coils of an anaconda. He passed out.
Bill knew things were not good when he finally opened his eyes. There was a searing pain at the back of his brain. With wet fingers he carefully explored the throbbing lump. Then, with a great deal of effort he rolled himself onto his side.
His wet and soiled form clumsily rose up from the ground. His legs quivered like rubber bands, arms dangling at his sides like broken sticks attached at the shoulders and elbows by pieces of bailing twine. His eyes, barely focusing, were still unable to pierce the darkness.
Bill struggled to keep himself upright. He closed his eyes. In that moment, he imaged the open pages of a book directly in front of him. The bound manuscript hovered just out of reach. He envisioned a type-set text but could not see anything clearly.
His left hand stretched out to grasp the tome. His arm ached and fell limp to his side. He tried again. The book eluded his grasp. He strained to read the cryptic message.
“Is that mine?” he wondered, as the imagined writings slowly became legible. The phantom manuscript described two Charlie Chaplin-like characters arguing about the virtues of heaven and hell as opposing destinations for their next summer vacation. The written words then took another form and the tragically comical pair materialized before him.
“I’ll bet the winters are shorter in Hell,” Charlie One said.
“Haven’t you ever heard the expression, it’s colder than Hell out here?” Charlie Two replied and wiggled his short-cropped mustache.
“What makes you think they would give you a room at the Heavenly Hilton, anyway?” Charlie One countered.
“Because it’s only a block, a block, a writer’s block away!” Charley Two placed his hands on his hips and shook with laughter. The two apparitions abruptly disappeared.
“Give me a break!” Bill yelled to his fickle muse.
With these four words he was reconnected to the searing pain at the back of his head. His dark world spun around like a cyclone.
“One damn block! How hard can this be? It’s the story of my life. Nothing ever comes easy! What did I do to deserve this?”
Bill grimaced as he took one step and then another. His wet clothes clung like icy fingers. Nothing seemed to work right. He felt like an old car sputtering forward. The unlit passage remained an enigma.
Ten strides later, his outstretched fingers collided with another stone surface and this time he embraced it, carefully turning his back to the perpendicular surface for support. He remembered that he had been walking but he wasn’t quite certain where he had been going. The idea that the cold engulfing him was not to be taken lightly seeped into his thoughts. He had to get control of the situation.
“What kind of story is this?” he asked himself with irrepressible irritation. “I need something intelligent, damn you! This is no good, no good…” he shook his throbbing head. “Heaven and Hell are probably temperature regulated all year ‘round, you idiots! They’re bound to have central heat and air! Shit!”
Bill’s brain ached to the point of breaking with the weight of his senseless thoughts. He felt trapped. His anguish seemed deeper than it had ever been in the confines of his dingy cut-rate hotel room. A sense of quiet desperation gripped him like a strangler.
The State Street Hotel, wasn’t that his destination? He tried desperately to clear his head.
Instinctively he realized he could not seriously entertain the idea of remaining here. “This is no place of peace, no marbled mausoleum for a world-weary soul. Aye, this icy hole shall not reverentially entomb my bones, nor embrace my noble thoughts! Now there’s a quote for you!” He winced.
Bill struggled to remain on his feet. Once more he shifted his weight over his legs, judging their ability to hold him erect. His body seemed to rebel at every attempt he made to make it move.
“Go on, take a step. Your old man was full of shit when he said you couldn’t do it on your own. Artists only get rich when they die, hah! Fuck that shit, let’s get back to it. A block, a block, it’s only a writer’s block!” Bill’s head didn’t ache as much as it had. Apparently, his last few words had been successfully reduced to thoughts. That was a step in the right direction. Now, he mentally cued his legs to propel him forward.
Bill detected a momentary streak of a headlight out of the corner of his left eye. He lurched, realigning himself. His feet were still being less than cooperative. He was somewhere near the middle of the alley. It was still pitch black and deathly cold.
“Keep moving,” he thought. “First you moved to Atlanta, then back to Cincinnati, out to Phoenix, back to Cincinnati, to New Orleans, to New York City, and then back to…”
With each city recalled, Bill managed an awkward stride. With the last step his body convulsed, rejecting the demands he was placing upon it. This time he instinctively reached out a hand as another solid black mass materialized to his right. His shoulder struck it roughly and then the side of his face. It was another wall, more textured than the last, but undeniably a wall. Was this to be his lot in life, running into one wall after another? He leaned into it, forehead pressing against the clammy wet surface. As he cradled his head in his elbow to stop it from spinning, he vomited.
When the pain in his gut finally subsided, he spun, uncomfortably fast, flattening his back against the unyielding barrier. Despite the sickly smell at his feet, his legs buckled and he found himself squatting like a broken marionette, back sliding down the rough surface.
He felt more relaxed now, perhaps too relaxed, as his mind became one with the night. Breathing heavily he began to dream with his eyes open. Time and temperature no longer an issue.
“Why do people punish themselves?” The new thought puzzled its way into his brain. He held onto it, turning it this way and that, like a prism.
The rays of refracted light filled his mind and he began to nurture an idea, a seed. It was the story of a tortured individual. Someone who takes anguish to its extreme, cutting gashes into his own wrists, sticking needles in his own eyes, scalding his mouth with cups of boiling water, but for what reason?
“This pathetic person,” Bill continued pursuing the nightmarish vision, “could end up throwing himself in front of a bus or jumping from a thirty-four story building. Anything is possible when you become so miserable that you choose not to go on living!”
“But what would drive a person to such a self-demeaning and violent end? Why such self-loathing? Where there is punishment, even self-inflicted, there must be a considerable amount of pain or guilt. This person might have killed, raped, or stolen something of great value. He might be in great physical pain or constant discomfort.” Bill considered the various aspects of motivation.
“But what if it was something far more subtle, more trivial? Could it also be the tale of a man unable to impress his father or lamenting the loss of a lover? Could such a curse afflict a man who has failed as a writer?” Bill’s thoughts trailed off and faded into the darkness.
A shudder passed through him. It was easy to get into this character’s head, too easy. He felt something moving down his cheek, something wet, yet warm. He wiped the tear away with a dirty sleeve. Where had that come from? Bill stared into the darkness for what seemed an eternity.
Bill’s mind was racing. He began to speculate further, “How would the reader relate? Would he or she feel sympathy, pity, disgust, or reject the whole thing as being too unrealistic, too phony? Could he bring such a character to life? Could he color this individual’s world in such a way as to pull the reader into the depths of this character’s despair? It would be a dark piece. Something strangely disconnected from reality and yet all too real.”
The unspoken words vanished like nocturnal mists fading from a Welsh moor at dawn. The palest rays of white-yellow sunlight brushed the top of the wall to his left. Mesmerized, his eyes followed the changing patterns as a dull tinge of light gradually cascaded down the side of the artificial canyon.
Bill’s body was wracked with cold and pain. At the same time, he realized that it was only a matter of time before the streets would run deep, once again, a torrent of urban hordes. Now was the time for him to make his move. It was “do or die.”
“I shall go to bed and wake up with a new story,” he said resolutely. He half-smiled to himself at this childlike notion. “A block, a block, a writer’s block… It’s got to be less than a block now… How hard can it be to find my own bed?”
“Some nights it comes harder than ya think,” a raspy voice crooned out from the opposite wall. But I’d a thrown ya to the cops if I didn’t know for sure ya wasn’t dead.”
“Shit!” Bill gasped audibly and scrambled to get to his feet. The dreamscape evaporated. His surroundings began to take form. A lone figure wrapped in a Salvation Army blanket stared across the alley at him. He had a look of bemusement on his shadowed face.
One of his feet was numb and almost gave out under him as he tried to stand. He stomped hard to drive the blood’s circulation back into it. The stinging of a million simultaneous pin pricks announced its revival. With some trepidation, he tested its ability to bear weight. This time it held firm.
“Sorry to bother you.” Bill said sheepishly. Still half dazed he stepped away from the hard, supportive wall. Fear and instinct launched him towards his destination.
From the narrow passage, Bill poured himself out onto a much wider avenue of ways and means. This was State Street. His wet and scuffed sneakers pounded the pavement like Clydesdales on parade. He glanced sideways, squinted at the cold white light of the rising sun, and found himself half hoping to see a circus clown or the Keystone Cops.
Although the street was free of cars, it didn’t stop Bill from cautiously traversing it like a shallow, but treacherous, mountain stream. And only then, did the familiar façade of the once stately State Street Hotel materialize directly in front of him.
He carefully navigated the rotating entry door, spinning his way into the empty lobby. The night auditor was conspicuously absent, probably in the pantry, cramming down some continental breakfast muffins. This thought, compounded by the mind-swirling entrance, made a gnawing discomfort in his gut notch up to a teeth-gritting nausea.
Eyes down, in an effort to avoid the glare and not the possible stare of a seldom-diligent house detective, he carefully counted the tiles adjacent to a narrow strip of stained, tread-worn, and most notably, blood-red runner. He had to stay on the runner. That was the rule. Forty-five paces would bring him to the elevator door. This was ritual.
Flexing his right elbow and wrist, his hand smartly struck its intended target and a grey metal door moved aside. Another subconscious swipe of the hand and the small yellow circle marked with a seven lit up.
“I’ve got to start writing again!” Bill mumbled as the doors collided behind his muddy back. “A good story can be about anything, no matter how mundane or bizarre!” He considered his words carefully. “A block, a block, a writer’s block…” He closed his eyes, shook his head, then smiled.
Story written: November 21, 2006 Edited 4-12-10 WC 4,108